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Some of my friends were on Letterman this past week. On Monday, my good buddy and Bill Mike bassist Chris Morrissey played with a suddenly very country-leaning Ben Kweller. Check out Paul Shaffer sitting in with them and rushing his solo super bad at 1:31… and the D’Angelo quote in Chris’ bass line at 2:25…
… and then Andrew Bird was the musical guest on Tuesday’s show. Everyone in his band (Mike Lewis, Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker) is from Minneapolis…
I was talking with a student a few weeks ago about the AEDSK list, and why I posted it. Basically, the records on that list have influenced me a TON. That’s all. But when I tried to explain how the records influenced me, I realized something…
As a musician, I have a playbook. It’s a field manual for how to play my instrument in different situations and circumstances. It’s the sum total of my knowledge about the instrument and how it works (i.e., the mental side of being a musician). This playbook is quite detailed in some areas, very general in others, and the content is constantly being amended. I’m always learning new things about my instrument, and what I learn gets jotted down in the playbook, figuratively-speaking. The new knowledge adds to or clarifies the existing information in the playbook, and in some instances it even changes/replaces content I had previously thought to be trustworthy. The idea is that my playbook is hopefully always getting more and more accurate and helpful. I believe that becoming a good musician revolves mainly around building a solid playbook, and not just tackling and overcoming the many physical barriers that exist in playing an instrument.
Also, I’m trying to be as objective as possible in forming my playbook. I don’t want to just fill it with knowledge about what I like and don’t like. I’m instead looking for information about what works and what doesn’t. Things like how an audience responds to certain grooves and fills, or the characteristics that make playing piano trio jazz different from Big Band jazz. Of course no one can be %100 objective, but I’m just saying that hopefully the info in my playbook isn’t merely a reflection of my personal preferences.
So, back to the AEDSK list. The list contains the records that it does because those records are the largest contributers to my current playbook. There are a handful of other albums that would be on the list if I had made it 10 years ago. They’re not on the list now though, because those albums contributed content to the playbook that I’ve since deleted or rephrased (because I determined the information to be flawed in some way). I’m sure the next five years will bring more heavily influential records into my iTunes and onto the list, and perhaps I’ll even delete some of the existing records.
In the meantime, I think I’ll start going through the list and providing short explanations of each record. I’ll include an overview of the record’s sound, what the drumming is like, and what kind of contribution the album made to my playbook. Some of the records have been featured in the AOTW series, and so I’ll link to that wherever possible.
SUMMARY: Every musician has a playbook that they use to determine what to play and when, and every musician should be constantly revising that playbook. I believe the primary means of sharpening one’s playbook is through listening, and the AEDSK list contains the records that have influenced my playbook the most. In fact, the albums have been SO important to me that I can’t imagine they wouldn’t help others’ playbooks as well.
Check out this very dated interview with the legendary Police drummer. It’s funny and awesome on so many levels…
SIS #3… nice. So far I’ve featured a New York player and Nashville player, and this week it’s all about keeping it local. The Twin Cities has an incredibly large and diverse music scene for it’s size, and one of the top dogs around here is Michael Bland. Michael’s playing was highlighted in AOTW #14, and you can of course hear him on hundreds of other recordings over the last two decades. If you live in the Twin Cities, then you can see Michael every Monday night at Bunkers! At the very least, do yourself a favor and google him… but first check out his direct and insightful answers in this exclusive interview…
(Me) What are some of your favorite records that have had a big influence on your playing? (Bland) “Fresh”- Sly and the Family Stone. “Sgt. Pepper’s”- the Beatles. “Greatest Hits”- Al Green. “Genius + Soul = Jazz”- Ray Charles. “Physical Graffiti”- Led Zeppelin. “What ‘cha Gonna Do For Me”- Chaka Khan. “Live”- Donny Hathaway.
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? I use a Yamaha 5.5×14 Paul Leim Signature snare.
Do you go tip-side or butt-side with the snare stick… and why? I play butt end, mostly, because it works for me, somehow. Also, if I want to play a cross stick, then it’s more pronounced, and easier to get a good crack.
How do you go about “doctoring” the drums with muffling and such? I tend to deaden the toms with duct tape till there’s no sympathetic ring. On the snare, I’ve taken to cutting moon gels in half, and placing three in a triangular pattern. It controls the ring, but doesn’t choke the drum.
Vintage Ludwigs… are they over-hyped or are they everything they’re made out to be? Over-hyped.
Fills… are you playing pre-planned stuff strategically, or are you just feeling the moment? Somewhere in between. I have my devices, but my best takes are always where I’m just channeling… just doing what the music says.
How do you approach your relationship with the producer? Are you just waiting for him to tell you what to play or are you pushing to make a case for your ideas? I don’t wait. I initiate and stay proactive. I ask what he’s after first. Next, I cite examples or players that we both might be familiar with. From there, I satisfy his requirements. And, I’ll usually do one or 2 additional passes after that, which exemplify what could be done, just so he can see.
How do you handle an artist who wants you to play lame parts/ideas? If he’s also the producer, then I just give him what he wants. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can leave and forget the session ever happened. If there’s another person to reason with, like a producer, then I make an appeal to them. If that doesn’t work, all I can do is satisfy the need, and move on.
What’s your perspective on the “renaissance man” issue… do you prefer to be very diverse but perhaps mediocre at everything, or do you focus on just one thing and risk being pigeon-holed as a player? My perspective, in general, is that I want to be good at playing MUSIC. There’s no such thing as a pigeonhole for someone who simply plays music. I don’t worry about genres, strong suits, and whatnot. Music is music… what kind is irrelevant. Either you know how to listen and play appropriately, or you don’t.
I just got back from Longview, Texas. The Jason Harms Quintet performed at LeTourneau University last night, and the performance was unusual to say the least. Our bassist (Jesse) somehow picked up a severe stomach bug, and so our Quintet suddenly became a quartet. Those of you who know jazz know that the bass is probably the most signature component of a traditional jazz sound.
The evening became an exercise in improvising, but not in the standard jazz improvising sense. I was struck by how the vernacular and vocabulary of my playing changed so dramatically. Of course things sounded different without the bass… but I’m talking about the way my mind approached the improvising. Think what would happen if the NBA suddenly raised the height of the hoops from ten feet to twenty feet. The game would still be the same in essence, but things like defense down low would change entirely. There would suddenly be no threat of anybody dunking or hitting a lay-up, and rebounding would be completely different. It would probably take a while for players to override the long-standing instincts of how to play in the paint. That was the case for me last night. Not only am I used to playing jazz with a bassist, but I’m also especially used to Jason’s songs. I’ve played them many times, all with the same sonic environment, and then with no warning I found myself in a completely different set of circumstances. The improvising felt very fresh and vibrant, while also urgent and risky.
I’m just trying to say that it was a cool experience. I don’t know if we succeeded or failed, but I think it wasn’t really that kind of thing anyway. There were some cool moments, and there were some less cool moments. Either way, the experience of being air-dropped into a situation so different from the normal environment reminded me of a great Miles Davis quote. According to Herbie Hancock, Miles used to always tell the band to leave their practicing in the practice room. “Don’t bring what you’ve been playing in there onto the stage,” he would say. What he’s getting at is the nature of good improvising. True improvisiation responds to the situation you’re in RIGHT THEN, and doesn’t force things from a different situation into your current situation. If you figure something out in practice, then that’s great, but don’t just hit the stage and wait for an opportunity to use your new-found skill or trick. The environment of the stage (in jazz, at least) is always changing and never truly predictable. Every moment in the preformance can be responded to in a good or bad way, and searching for the right response without the asterisk of hoping to include your new trick is the most beneficial way to serve the music.
My experience last night helped to remind me that my preconceptions of what I’m going to play at a Jason Harms gig need to be kept in check so that I have more freedom to respond well in the moment. I’m pumped to hit the gig again with Jesse back in the saddle, but especially now that I’ve got a fresh perspective on the songs.
Relentlessly creative, The Bad Plus will drop their new studio album on Feb 3rd, which features Twin Cities vocalist Wendy Lewis. Some of the tracks are posted on their myspace, in which you will hear my former teacher Dave King tearing holes in the minds of jazz drummers everywhere.
My good buddy Chris Morrissey, bassist for the Bill Mike Band, no longer lives in Minneapolis. On an unrelated note, Chris will soon release his debut recording as a band leader, in which you will again hear my former teacher’s mind-tearing tendencies.
My daughter Betty got a shout-out on my buddy Bryan’s blog.
For those who didn’t see today’s Inauguration of the 44th President, a quartet featuring Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman performed a piece by John Williams. It was incredible, and probably the most moving part of the ceremony for me. Just watch these guys play! Playing music is a privilege, and it’s supposed to be FUN. You can really see these masters owning their craft and enjoying the power of the music they’re playing. I wish I saw more of this attitude from musicians. I can’t stand watching players who appear bored, unaffected, or are just trying to look cool as they play. I want to see a performer take both their music and their performance seriously, and these folks did just that.
The SIS is back. Last week was New York’s Aaron Comess, and this week is Nashville’s Steve Brewster. Brewster has been apart of the A-list session player circuit down in Nashville for decades, playing on hundreds of CCM and Country records (including the Michael Olson record featured in AOTW #13). There’s not much to be found about Steve on the web, so I’ve got nothing I can link to for more info on him… which I guess makes this already cool interview that much cooler…
(Me) What are some of your favorite records that have influenced your playing a lot? (Steve) Anything Pat Metheny has ever done… anything Gino Vanelli has done (for instance, check out Nightwalker with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums)… 70’s pop and rock… Chick Corea three quartets… Earth, Wind and Fire… Jonatha Brooke… any of Jim Keltner’s stuff…. PETER GABRIEL with Manu Katche on drums… Sting… Jellyfish… Elvin Jones… Jack Dejohnette… Joni Mitchell… Shawn Colvin… Tori Amos… Fionna Apple… English rock… Radiohead… Keane… Coldplay… Death Cab… DANIEL LANOIS… Abe Laboriel Jr… Matt Chamberlain… Steve Jordan…. ok, I gotta move on or I’ll never stop. There is so much more…
How do you approach the working relationship with the producer? Are you waiting for him to tell you what to do or do you try to make your case with your own ideas? Listen to everything that the producer says. Everything. Even when he is giving ideas and direction to other players – it will help you get the vibe for what he wants. If he doesn’t tell me what to do then I’m gonna fly with my instinct. He’ll direct you when he needs to.
How do you handle an artist who insists on having you play lame parts? Hey… BE TEACHABLE AND APPROACHABLE. Sometimes a lame idea is a lame idea. Too bad. But then again, some cool things can come out of a suggestion that doesn’t resonate with me immediately. Turn it into music. Just go for the music, man.
How do you approach fills? Are they pre-meditated or are you just feeling the moment? Fills: WATCH OUT FOR THE VOCAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have screwed that up so many times. When you listen to the demo, make note of the phrasing of the vocal going into choruses, out of choruses, anywhere that you might fill. Is there a guitar hook happening at that moment? Phrase with it. And yes, always feel the moment – but have your ears open to what’s going on around you. Sometimes a fill can be a hook and repeating it is the vibe. And then sometimes you just shut your eyes and fling…
What’s your favorite snare for a wide-open rock sound? Anything goes, man. I love Black Beauties, of course. I have a new 6.5×14 Joyful Noise snare that also rocks. I have two Craviottos (a 5×14 and 6.5×14) that kill for the warmer thing. It just depends on the day, how the drum is translating through the speakers on that song, in that room, with that engineer, with that guitar tone, etc… you get it.
How often do you use a clean head on a snare at all, as opposed to lots of muffling? Well, yes and no. It just depends on the music. I am not afraid of a wide-open Ambassador, or a billfold duck-taped to the head, or anything in between.
What kind of muffling on the snare is your favorite? Moon Gells are great. Try cutting one in half when it’s too much dampening.
How do you deal with hihat bleed and other cymbal issues? OOOHHH!!!! The infamous hihat bleed. That’s a tough one. There is no way to totally get rid of this problem, so here’s the deal: just play the hats softer and use darker cymbals. There is a way to rock without overly bashing. Sometimes you just have to bash, but controlling your dynamics on the cymbals will give you a better drum sound and help make the mix bigger and fatter. Also, sometimes I put a dishtowel over the hat (I poke a hole in the middle of the towel and put it over the rod down onto the hat). If the snare has a lot of compression on it this will help, like when doing weird mono loops with tons of compression. The towel will help that situation for sure.
Are vintage Ludwigs overly-hyped or are they everything their made out to be? I have a set of 60’s Ludwigs in my studio, as well as a custom kit. They’re great. Are they a “must-have” for everybody? I don’t think so. Just stay true to your thing. I mean, give me 5 minutes with any kit and I’ll make it sound retro. Well, maybe 10 minutes. I’m not boasting… just saying it can happen many different ways. A vintage kit is a great idea though, as an alternate sound. And, it makes you play differently.
So, what’s your opinion on the “renaissance man” issue? Do you try to be as diverse as possible and risk being mediocre at everything, or do you focus on just one area and risk being pigeon-holed as a player? To me, diversity is an essential makeup of any studio player. An expansive vocabulary will NEVER hurt you if you know how and when to use it. As an artist, there is a certain amount of my personality that is going to be there, but I can turn it up or down. Don’t think of diversity as spreading yourself thin. but as a way of building your strength/depth/ability, so you can go deep in a lot of different situations.